Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Giants: Nostalgia

The 2009 NFL season had two very interesting and exciting conference championship games. I thought I would take a trip down memory lane to review an exciting conference championship game that the Giants played in more than 20 years ago and insert some of my own somewhat faded and admittedly murky recollections.

In 1986 the Giants had a dominant defense led by number 56, Lawrence Taylor. If you never saw him play, he was one player whose play actually exceeded his reputation. He was a game changer, completely absorbed the opposing offense in their game planning and blocking schemes. He was the best player on the field in every game he ever played in. In this particular game, Joe Gibbs put in a 6th OL-man, a G, lining him up in the backfield, usually right behind the TE, in order to block Taylor. Gibbs was particularly sensitive to stopping Taylor for a few reasons. Being in the same division his Redksins played the Giants twice per year, so he could see personally the havoc that LT could wreak on opposing offenses. In particular, in a November game the year before, LT laid the famous hit on Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career. Jay Shroeder was the heir to the Redskins qb mantel and Gibbs wanted to protect his assets. The Giants played a 3-4 defense and had 4 outstanding LBs, 2 of whom are in the hall of fame. The four LBs were: LT, Harry Carson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons. They also had very capable substitutes in Andy Headen and a few others, in what has to be considered one of the best LB units ever assembled on one team. They were having a very good year led by their defense and a good offense. Simms was passing to mostly pedestrian receivers but had RB Joe Morris and TE Mark Bavaro as important weapons. Lionel Manual was the main WR threat, but missed about 10 games that year due to injury. He came back for the playoffs and made several big plays.

The Giants beat the Redskins early in the year at Giants Stadium, behind 180 yards rushing by Joe Morris. I thought they were a good team, but was not thinking Super Bowl thoughts. They were winning a lot of games, but some of them were close and they did not have the aura of invincibility, especially with a great Redskins team down in Washington and Joe Montana leading the 49ers on the left coast. The Giants had been crushed the year before by the Bears in the conference championship game and I did not think they had progressed enough from that game to be legitimate championship contenders. Then the Giants went down to RFK Stadium late in the year (around Thanksgiving weekend, I think) and completely destroyed the Redskins 24-14. The game was not as close as the score indicated, the Giants sat on a 24-7 lead and gave up a late garbage time TD to make the final score closer. They intercepted 5 or 6 Redskins passes and moved the ball through the air easily on their defense. Personal note - I remember being really ticked off because I took my 7 year old son to a bowling birthday party on the day of that Redskins game in RFK and taped the game on VCR (remember those?) hoping to watch the game later without finding out the score. I successfully avoided human contact all day long with anyone who would tell me the score, but the VCR failed and I never watched that regular season game at RFK. Back to the story - when the Giants beat the Redskins so easily on the road, I remember thinking for the first time that the Giants might have what it takes to go all the way.

The conference championship game between the Redskins and Giants was a cold wintry January day in the Meadowlands, with winds of 30 MPH. Parcells strategy was to get up early on the Redskins and force them to have to throw the ball in that wind. Giants won the toss and Parcells elected to kick off, taking the wind at his back in the first quarter, hoping the defense would stop the Redskins early, they would get good field position and take that early lead. Giants kicker was Raul Allegre who had a very accurate but only a medium strength leg. His opening KO went all the way through the end zone, going beyond the back line on a fly, emphasizing the strength of the wind. Ironic twist - the starting RB for the Redskins was George Rogers, who was drafted first by Bum Phillips of the Saints a few years earlier, allowing LT to fall to the Giants. Giants stopped the Redskins first possession with a 3-and-out and got a weak punt into the wind, starting on the Redskins side of the 50. Simms moved them down for a first down but were stopped at the 30 yard line. Allegre kicked a FG from 47 to give the Giants a 3-0 lead. That distance is normally right at the edge of Allegre's range, but with the tail wind, he knocked it through easily. The kick had about 15 yards to spare and looked like it would have easily been good from 60 yards.

Allegre's KO after the FG was another touchback, also going through the endzone. Giants held the Redskins to another 3-and-out and got another weak punt into the wind, setting them up in Redskins territory again. Simms moved the team down for a few first downs and they were facing a 3rd and 10 from the 24 yard line. Simms threw an incomplete pass, and the Giants were called for holding in the OL. If Gibbs had declined the penalty, Allegre would have been faced with a 41 yard FG, shorter than the 47 yarder he made a few minutes earlier. Instead of declining the penalty, Gibbs accepted, pushing the Giants back to the the 34. If the Redskins held there, Allegre would have been faced with a 51 yard FG, easily within range with those trailing winds. It was only 4 yards longer than the first FG which looked like it had 15 yards to spare. Nevertheless Gibbs elected to push the Giants back and gave the Giants another offensive play. Simms took advantage of it, hitting Lionel Manual for 25 yards and a first down at about the 10 yard line. They scored a TD a few plays later on another pass to Manuel and had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

In the 2nd quarter, the Redskins had the ball and made some plays down field to get in position for a makable FG attempt. They made a bad snap on the FG attempt, however and the Giants recovered at around midfield. Simms tried to test the wind with a deep throw that was knocked down and fell to the turf like a dying duck. (It looked like a Dave Brown pass, who would be Simms' successor at Giants QB a few years later.) After that, Simms threw only short and medium range passes, those that he could throw flat and on a line, so that they would be less affected by the wind. He threw beautiful tight spirals, with a lot of rotation on the ball that could really cut through the wind in the Meadowlands. On this drive after the recovered bad snap, Simms saw TE Bavaro being covered by a LB and hit him on a shallow crossing route which he turned into a 25 yard gain. A few well designed running plays, including a naked boot leg by Simms, set up a short TD run by Morris for a 17-0 half time lead.

In the second half, the Giants did a great job stopping the run and because they were down by 17 points, forced the Redskins to pass in that bad wind. The Redskins QB, Jay Schroeder, had a big arm and actually made some plays, but the Giants defense stopped them every time and the game ended 17-0. My recollection is that the Redskins threw the ball about 50 times that day, not a formula for winning in the wind of January at the Meadowlands. The Giants won behind the great play by the defense, the good running of Morris, timely passing by Simms and the coaching of Parcells. However, the real star of the game for the Giants was punter Sean Landetta. I don't remember all the statistics, but with only 3 scores in the game, there were lots of punts, (somehow 15 punts sticks in my mind) many of them into the wind. Redskins averaged about 30 yards per punt and Landetta was over 40 yards per punt, including one memorable 45 yard kick into the wind. Giants also had some decent punt returns and Redskins had none, adding to the important special teams field position advantage that is so important in bad weather games.

Giants went on to beat the Broncos that had Elway at QB and Dan Reeves as coach in the Super Bowl by a score of 39-20. That was a very good Broncos team, who had just beaten the Browns (Accorsi was their GM) in the AFC conference championship on a FG in OT. They had tied the game in the 4th quarter with the famous 98 yard march ("The Drive") leading to a TD with less than a minute left.

Giants: Lessons learned from the playoffs

What follows are some random observations from the playoffs and from the Giants performance of the past year.

In the modern era of passing dominated football, you still need to have balance in your offense. You need to have a solid OL that gives the qb time to throw. You need a sound running game, to keep the defense off balance and not to allow them to defend a one-dimensional offense. In the passing game itself, you need variety in your stable of weapons. By that I mean that not only do you need good WRs, you need WR of different types - speed guys that can go deep as well as players that can catch the ball in traffic and make a play after they catch the ball. But it's more than that - you don't just need a TE, you need one that is a threat to make a play down the field and you need RB's that are threats with speed out of the backfield, to make a big play in the running game and to augment the passing game. Look at some of the teams that are successful in this year's playoffs - Vikings have a good set of WRs led by Rice as the deep threat and a play maker in Harvin but they also have Shiancoe at TE who has blossomed as a real good threat and of course have Adrian Peterson at RB who is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. Saints have Colston/Shockey/Bush. Colts have a variety of weapons at WR complimented by Clark at TE and Addai at RB who are dynamic weapons. Chargers have great WRs with Gates and Sproles who are dynamic threats. The Cowboys WRs are not great, but their offense started to hum when Austin stepped up and made some plays, becasue they have a playmaker Whitten at TE and Felix Jones is a speed burner at RB. By contrast, the Eagles are a one dimensional offense, relying only on the big play from their WRs. Of course this was enough to toast the Giants pathetic defense this year, but not good enough to do anything against a strong defense like the Cowboys. Even the Jets, who do not have a big time offense started to do better when Braylon Edwards actually caught the ball, when TE Dustin Keller made some plays and Shon Greene broke some runs from the RB position. I am not analyzing every team that made the playoffs, some had a slightly different makeup. But it's clear that the Giants need to get more dynamic and varied weapons on offense. You have to be very happy with the collection of young WRs that the Giants have and the qb that is getting them the ball. But this past year, that was the only component that the Giants had of the variety that is needed to have a powerful offense. Specifically, the OL took a step backwards and was mediocre this year, not opening up big holes in the running game and offering only moderate protection for the passing game. The running game was average, with Jacobs being subpar as the power-grind-it-out RB and Bradshaw mediocre as the speed back. Furthermore, neither was a threat in the passing game. Boss is a solid player, but is not a dangerous threat in the passing game. In retrospect, with so many components missing from the offense, it's a tremendous credit to Eli and the WRs that with such limited weapons on offense, they were able be as effective as they were and win as many games as they did. (Thanks to my buddy Ray who sent me an email that motivated me to analyze the offense this way.)

With this background, it's easy to see what needs to be fixed on the offense: a great OL-man, a real play maker at RB with great speed and an an upgrade at TE. On the OL, I am assuming that Beatty will move into a starting role this year, but I would like to see one more position upgraded. With Diehl able to move around to G or T, there is a fair amount of flexibility and it almost does not matter what position on the OL gets upgraded.

Defense is interesting also. I have posted before about how important team speed is on defense and how lacking it was for the Giants in the DB-field; how the Giants need to upgrade the LBs; and how they need to get tougher in the DL. But that is somewhat simplistic - football 101 - you need speed and size on defense. What I want to stress is that it is more important than ever to have speed and athleticism in the back 7 than it used to be. With the emphasis on the passing game and with the successful offenses putting pressure on the LBs and safeties with their TEs and RBs (see paragraph 1 of this post), this is a critical need.

There is one other observation I would like to make and it came from watching the Jets defense in the playoffs and from watching a DVD of the Giants-Steelers regular season game from 2008 (when Spagnuolo was still DC), which I did over the weekend. I was whining all season long about how creative the Jets defense was compared to the Giants, how their blitz package was so unusual and how they used their players so effectively. The Jets used DBs as blitzers very often. They would load up with 6 (or sometimes 7) DBs on the field in passing situation, and use them as blitzers, often having two overload one side and come from the edge. They would also occasionally have a LB coming between the T and G on the same side of the field as these edge DB blitzers or straight up the middle. This scheme relies on speed of DBs to get to the qb and with 6 or 7 DBs on the field, you still have some DBs back, able to cover. This was much more effective that the zone blitzes the Giants relied on as a staple, because the Giants would have a DE trying to run in coverage to guard the hot receiver instead of a DB. Th Jets scheme was effective, but I have to say that it is somewhat gimmicky. They had to do this because they did not have an effective pass rush from the DL. You saw what Peyton Manning did to this blitz package in the playoff game - if you block it, you can burn them. Of course, that is the best qb in football burning that defensive scheme, so it may not be as easy it seems. A baseball metaphor would be like analyzing how to get a certain hitter out... advance scout or pitching coach advises the pitcher: Mariano Rivera got him out with cutters. Notwithstanding how effective and creative this scheme may have been, in truth, the Giants were probably not equipped to use these kinds of blitzes this year for several reasons. They did not have the personnel to do it - they did not have enough fast DBs who could get to the qb in time. Mostly though, this scheme, with blitzing DBs puts an enormous amount of pressure on the S to cover man-to-man and the Giants safeties this year were thoroughly incapable of doing so. It exposes the safeties to cover and the Giants safeties were barely able to run up and down the field, much less cover a dangerous WR man to man. This brings me to the Steelers game I watched from 2008, which lends further substance to my assertion. Perhaps you remember the game - Giants were stopped at the Steelers goal line several times in the first half and were leading 9-7 at half time. In the second half, Big Ben hit one long pass play when James Butler looked absolutely stupid trying to cover a WR and Giants were down 14-9 going into the 4th qtr. Eli moved them down for a FG making the score 14-12, and the Giants defense stopped the Steelers, getting a sack to force them to punt from their own 15. The snap was bad, over the punters head, and Giants got a safety to tie the game. After that, Eli took the Giants in for a TD to win 21-14. The point is that the Giants used lots of creative CB blitzes in that game and completely confused the Steelers. They had CBs coming from the edge and LBs occasionally coming up the middle. Several times this forced S Phillips into 1-on-1 coverage and each time he handled the situation perfectly, either making the tackle in the open field, breaking up the pass play, forcing a bad throw that led to an INT and one time making an INT himself. Pierce was still able to run then and Kehl was playing LB, so the Giants even had some speed and athleticism on the field from the LBs. Perhaps the predictability this year on defense was not all Sheridan's fault. The Giants DB-field had terrible S play and did not have enough quality, fast players at CB to do anything much more creative than they did. Furthermore, with Pierce slowing down and Boley out and injured much of the year, the LBs were simply not able to help in these schemes.

I am not saying that Sheridan should have been retained, I am just saying that his hands may have been tied by the personnel limitations on the team. The Giants were thin in the DB-field to start the year. When Phillips and Ross went out and when Dockery's play slipped, it was difficult to dial up creative blitzes and defense. Add to that the decline of the LBs and the injuries in the DL and it's not hard to understand why the defense slipped as badly as it did.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Giants: Off season musings


It sure looks like Bill Sheridan's career has come down to earth after a recent, sudden rise. The Dolphins announced that they hired Sheridan as their Inside Line Backers coach. That's quite a step back from his job as DC with the Giants. The Dolphins are looking for a DC after firing Paul Pasqualoni and apparently Sheridan was not considered for the DC position. He wasn't even taken as the LB coach, but only the Inside LB coach. Retrospectively, we can probably assert that this was a terrible hire by Coughlin a year ago. First, Sheridan's job as DC with the Giants was the only time in his career that he ever had a job as high as coordinator and he did it in his first stint in the NFL, with the Giants being his first trip to the pros. Sheridan's career resume looks like this:

Bill Sheridan
Born: January 27, 1959, Detroit
High school: De La Salle, Detroit
College: Played LB at Grand Valley State
Coaching career:
1985-86: University of Michigan - Graduate Assistant
1987-88: University of Maine - Linebackers Coach
1989-91: University of Cincinnati - Linebackers Coach
1992-97: Army - Linebackers Coach (1992-95), Defensive Backs Coach (1996-97)
1998-00: Michigan State University - Linebackers Coach
2001: University of Notre Dame - Safeties, Special Teams Coach
2002-04: University of Michigan - Linebackers Coach (2002), Defensive Line Coach (2003-04)
2005-09: New York Giants - Linebackers Coach (2005-08), Defensive Coordinator (2009)
2010: Miami Dolphins - Inside Linebackers Coach

Sheridan was a college position coach for 18 years, from 1987 through 2004, never with one of the dominant national programs like Alabama, USC etc. He joined the Giants first as LB coach in 2005, two years before Spagnuolo came to revive the defense. He was LB coach for 2 years before Spagnuolo arrived and served without particular distinction. When Spagnuolo arrived and revived the entire defense, Sheridan was probably riding his coat tails and had his LB's play well because of the overall improvement of the defense. He then ascended to DC in 2009 with disastrous results. By contrast, Spagnuolo's apprenticeship began in 1984. He was defensive position coach and also defensive coordinator in several college programs. He served also as defensive coordinator for a few years in NFL Europe and in one year managed to coach 9 of his 11 starters on the Frankfurt Galaxy to graduate from Europe to jobs in the NFL. After fifteen years of experience coaching he returned to the NFL in 1999 as LB coach under Jim Johnson of the Eagles and served for 4 years as the DB coach and then 4 more as LB coach. His resume and seasoning was complete. I am not saying that the only way to become a DC in the NFL is to be a coaching lifer with 20 years of experience coaching, some at the DC level and a good portion of it in the NFL. But it sure helps.

Look at the Jim Zorn experience in Washington - he had never been a coordinator at any level in his coaching career and was hired to make a big step from QB coach to OC. Before serving as a day as OC, he made the double jump directly to HC. How did that work out for him? There's no substitute for experience.

A second look back at the Giants offense of 2009

My friend Ray sent me an email and made some excellent points about the Giants offensive
performance this past year. I have copy and pasted the mail below:
Offensively, the Giants executed a huge disinformation project all year long. For most of the year, they hid the fact that Jacobs, Seubert and Hedgecock were all significantly hurt. Hence, week after week, Coughlin preached running the ball, and Jacobs promised that he would get 100 yards next week, but, in fact, the only game plan they had available to them was to have Eli throw, which, week after week, they did. It is a credit to Eli and the receivers that the offense scored as any points as it did – enough to win several games at least. And one can hope that, if those three players come back to form (a big if, I admit), the offense will be OK.

Some very good observations, as always from Ray. Ray also says that, as much as we like Kevin Boss, the Giants could use a bigger playmaker at that position. I agree. I am also eager to see more speed and playmaking from the RB position. Even if Jacobs comes back, he has never shown that he is a threat to catch passes out of the backfield, notwithstanding the one 70 yard run that he made against the Cowboys late in the year. Bradshaw was hurt all year also, but I am not confident that he has the pure breakaway speed that you need at the position. Giants need to upgrade the speed and pass catching ability at the RB position. Giants should also do something to upgrade the OL - either at T or at LG or both. They have to get younger and more athletic.

The risk is that the Giants will sit tight and presume that the injuries are the cause of the 8-8 performance this year, but I am fairly confident that Reese will avoid that trap. Remember Reese's action in the first year he took over - he got rid of a bunch of aging players that were often hurt: Pettigout, Arrington, Emmons, Demp and a few others I can't recall right now. His philosophy is that injuries are part of the game and have to be managed as part of the personnel evaluations. When a player ages and starts to get injured, the pace of continuing injuries usually increases and simply has to be considered, as cruel and cold as that seems. I expect Reese to do the same surgery this year as he did in his first year with at least some of the aging veterans that were injured this year, including: Pierce, MacKenzie, Robbins and Seubert.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Giants: playoff review

A look back at the Cowboys Season

In the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the nephew of Abraham, Lot, is saved from the destruction along with the rest of his family. When talking about Lot's wife, the bible says in Genesis, chapter 19, verse 26:

"His wife peered behind him and she became a pillar of salt."
Biblical scholars and moralists try to draw a lesson from this action of the wife of Lot implying that her looking behind at the burning cities, was taking pleasure or drawing satisfaction in the punishment and destruction that others received. Of course, far be it from me to ignore this moral lesson and take happiness in the failure of others, but in this case, I'll make a tiny little exception. It's different when you're talking about the Dallas Cowboys - their moral status is slightly below that of the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah and there might be a little window open for one to take some glee in their demise.

I said in a post earlier in the year that I am not sure what I am hoping for as a result for the Cowboys this year. What would be more painful to their franchise - a big hit this year, where they don't make the playoffs or a little bit of success this year and a longer, slower period of suffering made more bitter because it is built on the high expectations gained from some taste of success. Here's what I mean- it's always fun to see America's team struggle; to see Cowboys fans suffer... those fans who think that they are entitled to success every year and that in effect the Superbowl trophy really belongs to them and they are just lending it to the rest of the league in years where their team doesn't win. It's particularly pleasant to see Jerry Jones squirming at another Cowboys failure, going down to the sidelines near the end of the game so he can get on camera again, and instead of a victorious, triumphant, arrogant look in his face, to have the dazed look of someone who has suffered some great indignity. That's good, don't get me wrong, but there's another side to it. If the Cowboys would have missed the playoffs entirely this year and had not won a playoff game, then Wade Phillips would surely have been fired. That would have been bad. I like Wade Phillips in Dallas; he has shown himself to be a good DC but not a great HC. He's just good enough to keep the Cowboys and their very good talent competitive enough every year, but not quite good enough to get them over the top. Some other coach would have come in and cleaned house, restored some order and some discipline and perhaps would have been able to take these Cowboys to the next level, because they do have a lot of talent. I, therefore, would much prefer a period of long slow suffering for the Cowboys rather than a short quick hit. Pull that band-aid off slowly so it hurts for a long time rather than one quick yank. Wade Phillips had a winning December record, made the playoffs, beat the Eagles in week 17 to win the NFC East division crown and won a playoff game - the first playoff win of his career and the first Cowboys playoff win in more than 10 years. With all those accomplishments, how can Jones fire Phillips? In a year when the Giants don't make the playoffs and the Cowboys do, at least we can take some enjoyment in the (likely) continued reign of Phillips in Dallas. Remember the karma angle - Wade Phillips' father Bumm is the genius who drafted George Rogers as his first draft pick for the New Orleans Saints and let Lawrence Taylor drop to the Giants.

Having said that - the Cowboys are really good - their defense has really grown. The big key is the growth of Jenkins into a very good CB. Cowboys for the past few years had an excellent front 7 but had holes in their secondary. If you could block their pass rush just a little, you could make plays against their secondary. Having two good CBs changes the equation. Phillips is a good DC and improved their defense greatly. As a side digression, with the Cowboys defense as good as it was, they sure didn't seem to miss Canty. Even with Phillips as coach, they are going to be a tough out the next several years. Romo seems to be maturing and Felix Jones is a great threat at RB. Their OL is aging but still good and they found some weapons at WR even if Roy Williams was less productive than they thought. So - I am not writing off the Cowboys, but I don't think Phillips is a great coach who can push them over the top.

Giants Needs

There are two big observations from the playoffs and what it means for the Giants rebuilding their team for the next few years. The winning teams showed athleticism and speed that the Giants just don't have. That may sound simplistic and obvious, but I am drawing a distinction between speed/athleticism and size. It is probably true that the Giants have to get a little bigger up front, but they have to get much faster and more athletic everywhere. Look at the big plays made by RBs throughout the playoffs and you'll see that they were all made because of speed, not power. Felix Jones, Reggie Bush and Shonn Green come to mind as RBs that made big plays because of breakaway speed. Partly for this reason, I wanted to keep Derrick Wrad over Jacobs, but that is water under the bridge now. Giants need to get faster at RB and have a legitimate passing threat from the RB position. As much as I like Boss at TE, he is not that fast either. The biggest area that the Giants need to improve their speed, however, is in the back 7 on defense. It's obvious at S, but at LB the lack of speed may be even more glaring. During these playoffs, I saw LBs running down field, playing in space and sticking with WRs and TEs. This is something that the Giants LBs just can't do. Of course, they do have to be athletic and have some size, it's not just speed. They can't put a track and field sprinter in at LB. But speed matters a lot.

Notwithstanding this need to have better team speed, the Giants also have to add a little size and power on the OL and DL. Giants can't completely sacrifice speed and go to oversized, un-nimble players there, but they got a little too light on the DL and OL in the past few years and need to upgrade the size there a little bit. The teams that dominated in the playoffs are the ones that won the battle at the line of scrimmage. That battle was won with size and speed, not just speed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Giants: DC Fewell is signed

Just a few comments on Fewell - the defenses in Buffalo were good and aggressive despite having limited talent wen he was there as DC. When he was elevated to interim HC after Jauron was fired, the team went a respectable 3-4 and played with some fire. He played a lot of zone in Buffalo, often using a Tampa-2 defense, but the hope is that he will adjust and play whatever style works with the players he has in NY. In Buffalo, with really bad weather in the winter, even worse than the Meadowlands, it's hard to judge how well the defense really performed. Then again, with the awful Buffalo offense, there was probably a lot of pressure on the defense, with them staying on the field a lot and they did well. Fewell called the games from the coaches box upstairs when he was in Buffalo, it will be interesting to see if Coughlin relents and lets him do the same here.

I think it was very revealing to read what Coughlin said about Fewell in his press release.

“I expect Perry to bring the same qualities that I expect from myself. I want him to be firm, fair, honest and demanding. My expectation is that he will solidify and unify our defense and be an outstanding teacher.”

Nothing too dramatic, controversial or revealing in that statement. It is kind of normal coach-speak pablum. Although the comment about being an outstanding teacher was interesting - I am not sure Sheridan did much of that. But perhaps we got a hint to what Coughlin's issues with Sheridan were in the next part of the press release. Coughlin added:

“I want energy, enthusiasm, toughness, and to make the necessary corrections and game adjustments.”

Breaking this statement down into its parts: Coughlin did not get the energy and enthusiasm from Sheridan that he got from Spagnuolo. We all saw that the players did not play with great fire or passion. This didn't show itself at the start of the game, perhaps, but as soon as something went wrong, they got down on themselves and the effort suffered. Sheridan also was not tough and demanding with the players - you get the feeling that all he did was pick on their errors and criticize. That's not the same as being tough and demanding up front, teaching the players technique and telling the players what he wanted. Second guessing, after the fact criticism, without teaching makes a team unravel.

The second part of the sentence, when Coughlin said he wanted the "necessary corrections and game adjustments" is, IMO, most revealing. Why would Coughlin say this? Why include it in the press release? Just leave it as a general statement about pulling the defense together. I think Coughlin saw that game planning and strategy was not Sheridan's strength and mid-game adjustments and corrections were even worse. Just for reference, look back to the New Orleans Saints game, the first game where the Giants defense was exposed as being weak. Giants went into the game with a defensive game plan to stop the run. They analyzed the Saints as a strong running team that liked to establish the run and then throw after that. I disagreed with that analysis, as did most experts, who think primarily of Brees and his outside weapons when you consider the Saints offense. An analyst on TV before the game, predicted that the Giants would get gashed up the middle by deep passes from the Saints, attacking their weak safeties. Of course, that is exactly what happened and the Giants defense was woefully unprepared for the passing attack of the Saints. Even if the Giants defensive coaches correctly read that the Saints were a run-first team, and the Saints broke tendencies by passing, the poor coaching was in not making any adjustments during the game. The Giants defense was bunched at the line of scrimmage to stop the run all game and they got beat with the pass. They played very predictable zone defenses putting their safeties in the position of having to cover 1-on-1 often and exposed them to the Saints passing game. The Giants made no changes during the game and gave up 40+ points to the Saints.

I think this reveals several things about the Giants defensive game planning under Sheridan: 1. He was not good at judging the opposing offense's strengths and weaknesses. 2. He was not good at self-scouting, judging his own defense's strengths and weaknesses, nor was he able to come up with a game plan that covered up Giants weaknesses and compensated for their flaws. 3. He was not good at making in-game corrections and adjustments.

I think all of these things are referred to in the press statement by Coughlin.

It will be interesting to see which coaches Fewell keeps and which he lets go. It was logical to keep all the coaches, giving Fewell a chance to interview them and let him build his own staff. No doubt he will bring some new coaches in and he may keep some that are currently on staff. DL coach Waufle must have done something to tick someone off, to be the only coach who was fired before the new DC came in.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Giants: random thoughts

Doesn't anyone want to coach for the Giants? I really wanted Romeo Crennel to be the new DC for the Giants. I would have thought he would want to come back to NY as well and relive his glory days in NJ. He was a Parcells discovery but was not the DC until he got to NE under Bellichick. Giants contacted him but he signed with the Chiefs. I guess he wanted to be reunited with Charlie Weis and Scott Pioli, the GM, with whom he has more recent contact and experience. Crennel and Coughlin were on the staff of the 1990 Giants Superbowl team together, but they have not worked together for the last 20 years.

Coughlin also interviewed Perry Fewell, the DC in Buffalo under Jauron who became the interim coach when Jauron was shown the door. I don't know if Coughlin offered him the job, but he seems to be pursuing other offers, rumored to be Chicago under Lovie Smith. (Editor's note: Fewell accepted the position on Thursday.) Is it possible that Coughlin has a bad reputation managing coaches? Or perhaps everyone feels that the Giants are in for a major overhaul on that side of the ball after the defense showed to be one of the worst in football this past year. It's not that they don't want the challenge, it's just that they would rather go to a place where they have a chance for success. Firing Sheridan after one year may not give prospective coordinators the feeling that the leash is too long in NY. Firing Waufle may send the same signal. Giants may end up with Jauron, who is an excellent coordinator. But - I am not clear how the money works for Jauron. he still has 1 or 2 years left on his contract in Buffalo and he would certainly not get as much money as a DC as he did as HC, so there is little incentive for him to work this year. We'll see.

January 15th update: The fact that Fewell has now accepted this position doesn't change the fact that Coughlin may have created a bad reputation as a coach's coach. I don't know that much about Fewell, but the defenses in Buffalo were pretty good. It's Jauron that was lost.

How good is the NFC East? We always crow with pride that it is the best division in football, but I am not sure that is the case this year. Two teams made the playoffs from the NFC East and the third place team (Giants) had a .500 record. That sounds pretty good, but since there are 2 wild cards, if two divisions provided them, there is no particular distinction there. The NFC South had only one playoff team, but they also had 3 teams with a record of .500 or better. Two playoff teams came out of the NFC North, where the 3rd place team, Chicago, was 7-9, only one game worse than the 8-8 Giants. The worst team in the NFC East was Washington at 4-12, but the Redskins got swept by the NFC East this year, going 0-6. That means that against the rest of the league, the Redskins were a not-quite-as-awful 4-6. There are enough indicators back and forth so that we can say that the division has probably come back down to earth and was not decidedly better than the rest of the league in 2009.

Jets have a chance this weekend against the Chargers. I am not saying they will win, but the matchups seem to be pretty good for them. Chargers don't stop the run very well and the Jets run the ball very well. Chargers get all of their offense from the passing game and the Jets are very good at defending the pass, with Revis, the best CB in football and a host of interesting blitzes that can confuse the opposing qb and offense. Jets should try to run the ball and keep the score low. While Rex Ryan has not proved himself yet as a great coach, Norv Turner has the reputation of this generation's Marty Shottenheimer - doing well in the regular season and finding a way to mess up the playoffs. Even if the Jets don't win this weekend, you have to say that they are set up to go on a good run and be a very competitive team for the next few years. They have an excellent OL with a mixture of youth and age, some young growing playmakers on offense, a qb that looks like he will be very good and an excellent defense led by a coach with a creative defensive mind.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Giants: coaching and management changes

No surprise that DC Bill Sheridan is gone, it was completely expected and did not take a lot of deliberation from Coughlin and the management team. But Thursday the Giants also announced that DL coach Mike Waufle was fired and I am a little surprised at that. There's no doubt that the defense played well below preseason expectations. There's also no doubt that the DL was thought to be an enormous strength on this team and was a surprising weakness. I hope there's more to the dismissals of Sheridan and Waufle than that; I hope the analysis runs a little deeper. Put another way, I can understand Sheridan being dismissed. He had never been a DC before and it is possible to analyze his performance, how he used his tools, diminished though they were by injuries, and make a determination. It is possible that Coughlin made the judgement that Sheridan did not do well and that he did not have the goods to improve in the future. However, in Mike Waufle's case, while it is true that the DL did poorly this year, it is also true that he is doing the same job that he has done for the last several years. He has a track record of success and capable coaching at this exact position. He was popular with his players, was a good leader and I am a little surprised that he was dismissed. If any unit can rationalize weaker performance because of injuries, it is the DL. Tuck was playing with one shoulder, Cantry was playing on one leg and both are having surgery to repair their injuries. In addition, budding star Alford was lost for the season. Other players underperformed either because they are slowing down or because they had not sufficiently recovered from previous injuries (Robbins, Osi, Cofield). I know the old hackneyed saying that you can't use injuries as an excuse, but you also can't judge a coach if he's not playing with a full toolbox. Furthermore, the uncreative schemes that the Giants used on defense were dictated by the DC, not the DL coach, and those predictable sets had more to do with the DL and the defense weakening than did the coaching by Waufle. Maybe a shakeup at every level will inspire (i.e. frighten) the players to not be casual about their preparation and will get them to play faster and more emotionally. But it is still a little surprising to me that Waufle is gone. Frankly, there were far more breakdowns in the DB-field than there were in the DL in the way of missed assignments, poor tackling and poor technique. I would think that Merritt and Giunta might be on the hot seat also.

Marc Ross, the genius whiz kid that is the Giants director of college scouting and talent evaluation is being interviewed for the GM job in Seattle. If he is offered the job and leaves, that will be a huge loss for the Giants. The drafts the last several years, since he ascended to that position have been great and he is largely credited with it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Giants: What's next - II

The last post looked primarily at the defense and what has to be changed there. This post will concentrate a bit more on the offense. Before I get to that, it is interesting to review some of the comments that were made in the press by Giants management on Monday, specifically by owner John Mara, GM Jerry Reese and HC Tom Coughlin. There seemed to be some disparity in their remarks and definite differences of opinion on what went wrong this year. Mara was spitting mad and said he was angry at everyone and everything that moved. He thought major changes were required and I assume by that he meant both in the roster and in the coaching staff. He also railed at the fact that the team gave up and didn't try hard. The games that the Giants got blown out and were completely uncompetitive particularly got his goat and he said there were way too many of those. His interpretation of the blowouts were that the team didn't try. He agreed that there were some injuries, but asserted that the injuries were not catastrophic and the team should have managed through them. The roster was way stronger than the results.

You got a bit of a different picture from Reese and Coughlin. They insisted that injuries really hurt the team and that the team tried hard and did not quit on the season. With the announcement that 5 key Giants players are due for surgery this week, one has to admit that it gives a little credence to their position. Tuck (shoulder), Canty (knee), Jacobs (knee), Hedgecock (shoulder) and Bradhaw (ankle) are all due for surgery. With Robbins and Cofield coming off knee injuries, Alford out for the season, and the players that stayed on the field, Tuck and Canty, limited by injuries, you can provide an explanation for why the DL underperformed. Of course the biggest loss may have been Phillips and the CBs who missed a fair amount of time. Phillips was a star in the making and he was irreplaceable. I love it when people say you can't use injuries as an excuse. Perhaps it's not an excuse for the players to quit and stop trying, but it is certainly an explanation for poorer performance. If the substitutes were as good as the starters, they would be starters and not substitutes. There has to be a drop off in performance when starters go out. Coughlin and Reese also felt that the roster did not need to be blown up and reconstituted from scratch, but some tweaking (perhaps heavy tweaking) was in order. Of course Coughlin and Reese insisted that the players did not quit, that the effort was there. The Giants have some serious questions to answer: was Canty hurt or is he overrated; can Phillips come back from the serious surgery he had; is Osi done or is he due for a revival; will Alford come back from knee surgery? Giants have to guess at these answers and stock their roster based on the results. Tricky. Notice that I am not putting in a question about Antonio Pierce. Everyone is assuming that he is done. Interestingly, when Reese reviewed his off-season FA acquisitions, he said something cryptic, like "maybe we got the worng guys".

On the offensive side of the ball, notwithstanding the fact that Jacobs was hurt all year (he admitted that he hurt his knee in the first quarter of the first game of the season) , the Giants running game needs to be upgraded. Bradshaw is a nice change of pace RB who can get 10-12 touches per game, but the Giants need a RB with breakaway speed. Just as the offenses are dominated by the passing game, the running game has turned into a track meet and teams need to be able to make big plays in the running game as well. Besides the RB upgrade, the Giants need to get better play in the OL. The Giants running game was built around the strong athletic interior OL-men pulling and getting out in front of Jacobs on the stretch play. Seubert had a bad season and O'Hara was not great either. MacKenzie at RT was solid but unspectacular, but started to get hurt this seaso. Diehl at LT was a little up and down this year, and his play tailed off towards the end of the season. The Giants OL is a collection of good players with moderate athletic skills who are coached very well, are smart and get absolutely the most out of slightly-above-average ability. When their play slips a little bit, they get overwhelmed athletically and their smarts can not compensated for their lack of pure talent. If the Giants think that they have the LT of the future on the team now in Will Beatty, they should move Diehl inside to replace Seubert and turn over the LT position to Beatty. At RT, I would not simply cut MacKenzie; but if I could upgrade the position, I would do so. The WRs are very strong and may be the best unit on the team. Even Ramses Barden is starting to open people's eyes with his performance in practice this season. Travis Beckum did not show a lot this year, but the TEs are fine with Boss and Bear Pascoe, who I really like.

Finally, I would look real hard at upgrading the OC Gilbride with someone young and creative. In other words, Giants need someone with a brain. The OL coach Flaherty is a keeper, perhaps the best in the NFL. TE coach Pope is strong, Mike Sullivan did a great job with the WRs and Ingram does well wih the RBs. On ST, Quinn should be shown the door, he did not do a good job.

In summary, fewer changes are probably required on the offensive side of the ball, but the OL and running game are definitely in need of an upgrade.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Giants: What's Next?

Everyone always looks for easy answers. When a situation is in disarray, or to describe it the way they might on MTV's Jersey Shore, when things are a f-ing mess, it is not uncommon to look for one thing to blame, one scapegoat, one thing to fix and go after it. It is somehow comforting to feel that there is only one thing wrong, one thing that is broken and if you are able to fix it, you will be back on the path to health, or in this case, back on the road to a successful football team. It is much more daunting to look at 5 or 6 things that may be broken, because it may take years to fix them all. I think this applies to the current Giants team. The quick fix, the scapegoat, the obvious one to blame for this disaster of a season is the DC, Bill Sheridan. After all, the Giants had a great defense in 2007 and 2008; it was upgraded with some key FA acquisitions and it was thought to be loaded. Far from having a dominant defense, the Giants gave up 427 points, second highest total in their history. There were injuries, to be sure, but there is no doubt that the defense did not play up to its potential. The defense was unimaginative, predictable and played without passion. The fundamentals were weak, with poor tackling, poor zone technique in pass coverage and hosts of blown assignments especially in the passing game. In run defense, the poor fundamentals showed up in lack of discipline in filling running lanes, poor outside contain and poor gap control. The coaches did not coach the players well enough, but the players also did not play well enough.

To put all the blame for this fiasco on the DC is clearly wrong. Don't misunderstand me, I think he needs to be fired, but there are some fundamental personnel changes that need to be made on both sides of the ball, but particularly on the defense and the organization has to look beyond just the DC for coaching changes. Let's face it - the Giants quit on their coaches in the last two games of the season. Michael Strahan said it on one of the Fox NFL studio shows; he said: "The Giants licked a stamp, put it on and envelope and mailed it in weeks ago." This quitting goes well beyond the defense as neither the offense nor ST showed up the last two weeks. When the team quits on the coach, when he does not have his finger on the pulse of the team, when he is unable to motivate his players to perform with some energy and commitment, it is time to think about changing the coach. I think Coughlin is a fine coach, a winning coach, and is obviously capable of winning championships. But sometimes, the players don't hear the voice of the coach that has been harping at them for years (6 years in the case of Coughlin) and a change is needed. After the 2006 season, the Giants ownership and management were considering firing Coughlin because of the mediocre performance (8-8 record compared to 11-5 the previous season and another 1st round playoff loss, this time to the Eagles). They also did not like his treatment of players, his confrontational style with the press and his attitude. He was able to convince management that he could change his attitude, and most of all that although the players complained, they played hard for him and the team hadn't quit on him. This was evidenced by the win in week 17 of 2006 to make the playoffs and the comeback in the 4th qtr of the playoff game against the Eagles to tie the score with 5 minutes left before ultimately succumbing. This was the sign that the team had not quit. Well if those are signs that the team had not quit on the coach in 2006, the evidence is manifest that the team quit on the coach in 2009. Even with a playoff bid in the balance, they did not show up against the Panthers in week 16 and were even worse in Minnesota in week 17. The worst indictment for a coach is that the players quit on him and sometimes, the only thing to do is to fire the coach. If not, you have to completely shake up the personnel to get a different mix of players in the locker room. I am not talking about window-dressing, like bringing in a new backup S. I am talking about big personnel changes to both upgrade the team and the attitude of the players. Sometimes, you have to do both - back up the truck and clean out the entire team, coaches included.

You're probably wondering what the Giants need to do, and I am only too happy to help you out. The Giants need 2 new starting LBs and they need to drastically change the character of this position on the team. This is not your grandmother's NFL - this is a passing and speed league and the LBs need to step up and be part of it. Look around the league and the LBs are more like small forwards in the NBA than they are like plodding, Charles Oakley-type power forwards. Offenses have gotten into the habit of throwing out of quick 3 step drops to mitigate the threat of blitz or big pass rush. As a result, LBs need to drop back into coverage quickly, play in space and defend the pass. Pierce, even before he had lost a step or two, was not this kind of player. Now that he has slowed down, he is simply no longer able to compete at a high level. The LBs are the great athletes on the team - great speed and enough power to stand up to the running game when it comes their way. But if the LBs are a little smaller and more athletic, you need to bulk up the DL against the run, to stop the run themselves and at the very least to keep the OL-men from moving to the second level too easily and blocking the slightly-smaller LBs. For the Giants, this also takes the form of getting 1 or 2 new DTs to play better run defense. Canty was hurt all year, so I am not willing to write him off, Cofield is young enough to come back from his surgery in the off season and Alford might recover from his season-ending injury. But Robbins and Bernard look to be done to me and should probably be cut in favor of some powerful DTs.

It goes without saying that the Giants need to fix the S position. Neither C.C. Brown nor Aaron Rouse appear to be NFL caliber safeties in a passing league. Michael Johnson played well in the past, although he had an awful year in 2009. Giants will need to add 1 starting S and may need to add 2 if Phillips does not come all the way back. That is a lot of change on defense - 5 or 6 new starters.

There is another area that needs to be addressed in the front 7 and that is the Osi situation. After the Panthers game, Osi complained that he wasn't used right, that he probably played his last game as a Giant. In response, he played most of the Minnesota game, was poor against the run and did not get much of a pass rush either. Coughlin commented in response to Osi's remarks that: "he is an important player and is in the Giants plan for the future". Sounds good so far. Then Coughlin added another gratuitous comment that had me wondering. He said: "Osi is an asset to this organization". Why did Coughlin say that? Why didn't he stop after his first sentence, or add something like: we anticipate that he will return to his former high level of performance and be an outstanding player for us in the future. This "important asset" comment sounds suspiciously to me like he might be traded. An asset, after all, is not necessarily a player on the field. An asset is something you can move or trade to imporve your team. When a player starts complaining like this, there is often no salvaging the situation, especially if the player views himself as a star. If you restore the player's playing time and reinstall him as starter, then you have to deal with other players who will feel unhappy that the squeaky wheel got oiled. Conversely, if you keep him on the bench, the situation festers, the locker room divides and it is bad for the team. Occasionally you can find some compromise, but frequently, it spins out of control. Osi was never a great run stopper and he was further exposed this year when the DTs and the LBs around him slipped in their run support. Because of his limited on-field performance and his attitude which has the potential to fracture the locker room, Osi is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I would package Osi up with the Giants 1st and 3rd round draft pick and send him to Spagnuolo in Saint Louis for their 1st round pick. Spagnuolo loved Osi and got him to play when he was DC in 2007. He may feel that he can revive him and get him back playing to the pro bowl level that he did in 2007. The Rams need lots of players and trading down makes sense for them. If they want more than that, I would consider throwing in one of our WRs, since the Rams desperately need offense. With that first pick, the Giants would take Ndamukong Suh, the Nebraska DT and it would go a long way to solving the DL problems. With the Giants pick at the 15th slot, the Rams could still get a QB if that is the direction they want to go.

With my preamble earlier about the new speed-first, athletic LBs in the NFL, it says two other important things about the Giants. First, with the need for faster, more athletic LBs, the era of zone blitz is nearing an end. Zone blitz is when you bring an extra DB or LB from one side of the field and drop a DE into coverage. Forget it, this does not work any more. Offenses go to quick release by the QB and force the DE to play pass defense, something he is ill equipped to do, because he is even slower than the LBs. The reason this affects the Giants is that Sheridan did even more zone-blitzing than Spagnuolo did and much more often than othe NFL teams. Giants have to do less of this in the future and be more creative and imaginative in their blitz packages. The second interesting affect on the Giants is that Clint Sintim, the impressive physical specimen that the Giants drafted out of Virginia in the 2009 draft, may not be a good fit for LB in this league. He was a mostly-pass-rusher in college and, although he was nominally a LB, he played often with his hand on the ground. If the Giants acquire some fast LBs and get rid of Osi in a trade as I have proposed, Sintim may return to playing DE. He might be a perfect situational pass rusher for the Giants replacing Osi.